National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  January 23, 2004

John Dunne knew our longing for transcendent

Religion News Service

Nobody better fulfilled Henry James’ definition of a writer’s calling than John Gregory Dunne, who died as the old year ended. James’ ideal was to be “someone on whom nothing is lost.”

Nothing was lost on John Dunne, nothing of our human longing for the transcendent despite our sin-hobbled pilgrimages through the human condition. “A writer,” he once said, “is an eternal outsider, his nose pressed against whatever window on the other side of which he sees his material.”

He died of a heart attack Dec. 30 at the age of 71.

John Dunne was, in Saul Bellow’s classic self-description, “a first-class noticer.” This gift enabled him to re-create the world and its inhabitants in swift, deft phrases, not telling us what they were like but allowing us to feel their deepest and truest resonations just by letting us overhear them in conversation.

Speech as human revelation is found as high art in his masterpiece, True Confessions, a novel also made into a movie, in which post-World War II American Catholicism, the Church Triumphant after generations of immigrant struggle, comes to life in Los Angeles in the story of the Spellacy brothers, one a monsignor on the move to higher things and chief aide to the cardinal, and the other a detective immersed in lower things on the vice squad.

In this tale of Irish brothers -- a subject whose joys, sorrows and readiness for combat and reconciliation he knew well from being raised in a big family in West Hartford, Conn. -- we read the story of hard-won Catholic cultural ascendancy by the cultural paths then open to its sons, through the church or through the police department.

The novel contains the whole of that now-lost world at that moment and can be read not only as a touching and stirring entertainment but as a three-dimensional display of Catholic energy and achievement as it challenged and shattered the restraints of a wary WASP national culture in which even President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who depended on their political support, thought that appointing one Catholic to his cabinet or to the Supreme Court was about as far as he could go in rewarding them.

Those who want to understand Catholicism on its vigorous way toward electing John F. Kennedy may well consult this book rather than dried out statistical reports or tranquillized historical accounts. This novel, like no other, captures the muscular church on its march from sea to sea, building churches and Catholic schools, and expressing itself and its understanding of human compromise and sin in the uneasy relationships that developed between Catholic hierarchs, contractors, politicians and police departments.

John Dunne was not only a great writer, but an extraordinary friend whose last message to me came in a phone call to my wife while I was in the hospital for serious surgery at Thanksgiving time.

He wanted us to know that when he had been in Paris with his wife, Joan Didion, he had visited his favorite church, Sacre Coeur, and they said a prayer and lighted a candle for me. In the classic tradition he knew so well, John remained for Mass and Communion on my behalf.

I was not able to speak to him, but I hear his voice often now. He spoke, as he knew, with a slight hesitation at times, retrieving half a word or half a sentence, as a juggler might, to rebalance them and fashion them artfully into a dazzling sentence. That is what he did all the time, snaring shards and pieces of our glory and meanness, and transforming them into words that became like mirrors in which we could see and judge ourselves less harshly as humans.

He and Joan, against the grain of modern marriage tactics, were together all the time, joined, as it seemed to me, as flavors are in a salad so that, without losing themselves, they also constituted a third and wonderful thing, a man and woman in love and devoted in every moment to each other and to their daughter, Quintana.

John Dunne broke free of the restraints of time to enter the eternity with which he was as familiar as he was with Boyle Heights in Los Angeles from which the Spellacy brothers of True Confessions arose, or the Frog Hollow of West Hartford from which he and his own remarkable siblings arose. He had drawn down on his intimate knowledge of everything human, and, since nothing was lost on him, caught the sparks of the eternal in all of us so that he entered easily into its full and brilliant light.

Eugene Cullen Kennedy, a longtime observer of the Roman Catholic church, is professor emeritus of psychology at Loyola University in Chicago and author of Cardinal Bernardin’s Stations of the Cross: How His Dying Reflects the Mysteries of Loss and Grief published by St. Martin’s Press.

National Catholic Reporter, January 23, 2004

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